Tuesday, February 28, 2012

From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy

Joseph M. Schwartz

The Occupy Wall Street movement has already
succeeded in bringing to the fore long-simmering
public outrage against a corporate kleptocracy that
in the pursuit of short-term profit destroyed the
long-term health of American society. The Occupiers also
highlighted the complicit role in the economic downturn
played by a government sold to the highest corporate
campaign contributors and well-heeled lobbyists.
The Occupy movement forced the media talking
heads to take a break from their obsessive concern
with a recession-induced budget deficit to acknowledge
the devastating social effects of 30 years of rampant
growth in inequality. The movement also introduced
a compelling anti-corporate counter-narrative to the
corporate-funded Tea Party’s attempt to deflect (largely
white) working and middle class anger at their economic
dislocation onto alleged government tax giveaways to the
“undeserving” poor.
But will this shift in political focus continue? Only
if DSA activists and other progressives help Occupy
sustain itself over the winter. Come late winter and early
spring, the fight over proposed state and local budgets
will reinvigorate the disastrous elite narrative that we
must “cut” our way out of the recession. In reality,
both Europe and the United States can only reverse the
deflationary effects of a global financial crisis through
full employment policies that generate the revenues
needed to sustain public services. As recent Census
reports have demonstrated, approximately one-third of
Americans are living below or just above the official
poverty threshold, with child poverty rates among the
highest in the industrialized world. In a society where
we claim to “leave no child behind,” most will be if we
continue to cut public funding for child care, education,
and health care.
The Occupymovement implicitlylaid down a generaldemand: politicianshave no right to govern if their policies favor corporate plundering at the expense of the public good. Asbrute state force,combined with harsh winter weather, forces. Occupy out of its public encampments,the move inside may give it time for selfreflection and to plan a spring offensive. If Occupy is to more fully represent the 99% it claims to speak for, it must expand beyond its somewhat youthful base of those free enough from family and caring
responsibilities to do politics 24/7. Youth always play a key
role in social movements; they have more discretionary time
and hope for a just future. Middle-strata young people today
confront ever-escalating college tuition costs, burdensome
student debt, and a horrible entry-level labor market
(unemployment among college graduates between 21-25 runs
above 15 per cent and underemployment is rampant). The core
strength of Occupy is precisely this combination of youthful
idealism with collective self-interest.
When Occupy marched against foreclosures or in
support of union rights, it broadened out its race, class,
and age composition. In the coming months, Occupy will
have a unique opportunity to link up with community
groups and state and local employees fighting another
vicious round of budget cuts. Rising tuition costs and
the resulting massive increase in student debt is a direct
result of 30 years of neoliberal defunding of federal
and state aid to higher education. As United for a Fair
Economy’s “Flip It to Fix It” report demonstrates, if the
regressive high tax rates that the bottom 20 percent of
state residents pay in sales, excise, and property taxes
were imposed on the top 20 percent of state residents
(through progressive income taxation), the $200 billionplus
shortfall in state revenues this spring could be
eliminated. And it is precisely this revenue shortage that
conservative and centrist Democratic politicians use
to justify cuts in public spending and to attack public
sector workers’ rights to job security and decent wages
and benefits.
From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy
State Capitals in Spring 2011
Joseph M. Schwartz
The particular interests of Occupy’s youthful core constituents speak to the universal needs of the 99%, because all of society has an interest in equitably-financed public services and in government policies that create well-paying jobs that produce useful goods. A tax on speculative financial transactions could fund a public jobs program to retrofit our energy-inefficient housing stock, rebuild infrastructure, and build an alternative energy grid and a mass transit system. And only a government program to end foreclosures can restore the economic security and consumer spending needed to reverse a long-term global depression.
Occupy has implicitly advanced another big demand: that the economy serve human needs rather than human beings serving the needs of economic elites. As federal, state, and local budgetary policies reflect the contours of power in society, if Occupy this spring joins the fight for humane state, local, and federal tax, spending, and investment policies, it will be challenging the distribution of power in our society. Already campuses in the state university and community college system of California are exploding with protest against impending state cuts and resulting tuition increases. As goes California, so goes the nation. This spring Occupy should move to the front lawns and rotundas of state capitol buildings to demand a change in state budget policies – and to demand federal government aid to states and localities. As Frederick Douglass taught us, “power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has, it never will.” v
Joseph M. Schwartz teaches political theory at Temple University and is a member of DSA’s National Political Committee and a Vice-Chair of DSA. His most recent book, The Future of Democratic Equality (Routledge, 2009) recently won the American Political Science Association’s award for the best book in political theory.

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